The first time I saw the Thomas Jefferson quote, “I cannot live without books,” it was on a t-shirt in the Library of Congress gift shop. It resonated so strongly with me that I plunked down the money and bought the shirt. That was around 20 years ago. I still have (and wear!) that shirt, still agree heartily with its sentiment.
But a recent trip to Monticello, Jefferson’s home outside of Charlottesville, VA, revealed the historical context of this quote and brought me into an even deeper affinity with President Jefferson. Ironically, the history of this quote begins with the Library of Congress as well. During the War of 1812, the British burned our nation’s capitol and the fledgling Library of Congress. Three years later, in need of funds and concerned about public access to a library filled with good and important books, former President Jefferson came up with a plan which would be of benefit to both himself and the new nation: he would sell his personal library–the largest in the United States (almost 6500 volumes!)–to the government to restart theirs. On my past couple of visits to the Library of Congress (they have great exhibits and a fabulous building, in case you’ve never visited!), I’ve actually seen this collection–at least the 2/3 of it that survived a fire in 1851. It is an awesome sight, especially for a bibliophile.
After this momentous event that Jefferson pens his famous words. They come from a letter to former President John Adams, after the two friends turned enemies had become friends again in their waning years. He explained that after he’d sold his collection to the Library of Congress, he had begun filling the empty shelves in his home. For he found “I cannot live without books.”
The moment the docent related that story, my heart melted in commiseration. For while I might agree and disagree with Jefferson’s various thoughts, ideas or actions, this one I understand completely. In fact, I am currently living in the full meaning of his words.
When we moved to Austin last year, we packed up somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 boxes of books. We paid extra for a climate controlled storage unit and loaded it with our floor to ceiling, corner wrap around bookshelves, complete with library ladder, and all those books, carefully sorted and labeled. (As if I could actually find the book I desired among all those boxes!) But once we were in our apartment, we discovered very quickly that the few books we’d brought with us (some writing books, some research books, and most of our Bible commentaries and dictionaries) simply would not do. Especially since our apartment had a short wall of built in shelves just begging for books! A few months later, we bought 2 more bookcases and those have been filling steadily as well. Like Jefferson, my husband and I are not just readers, we are all out bibliophiles. And we simply cannot live without books.